Pool party. I’m an idiot, right? For someone like me, wouldn’t a big body of water by the prime place to avoid?
Most of the time, my brain’s thinking clearly, and I would have declined the invitation. Hell, I’ve gotten really good at thinking about all the twists and turns of any sort of social interaction – will there be booze, and I might lose control? Will people be getting wet? Is there rubbing alcohol around? Will my secret remain safe?
But when Kara looked at me, those big eyes of hers glimmering in the flickering light of our college graduation bonfire, my brain turned off. She grinned as she informed the rest of us that her parents had a pool in their backyard, that she was “watching their house” and could “totally get us in.” She leapt up to her feet, body parts jiggling in delightful ways that made my hindbrain applaud, and waved at us to follow her.
And twenty minutes later, I found myself staring down at the shimmering water, lit from beneath by lights, trying to shake off the calls from the rest of my friends.
“C’mon, Tom, the water’s great!” called out Danny, bobbing up and down beside Kara. He grinned up at me – although that wasn’t anything special, Danny basically always grinned whenever he was around Kara.
After all, they’d found each other. Perfectly matching symbols on their wrists, down to the tiny, intricate pattern of stippled dots surrounding the main diagram. They were meant to be together, and anyone could see it from the way they got lost in each other’s eyes.
The others hooted and hollered, gesturing for me to take the leap. We’d been friends practically since the first day of college, and I knew them all so well. Elaine, with her interlocking triangles. Danny and Kara, who fell in love even before they revealed their symbols. Rick, who insisted that his shape looked like an “alien smiley face”.
Only Sasha hung back, as usual. I still didn’t know how she’d become a part of her group, with her reserved nature, shy withdrawal from most conversation, and refusal to participate in anything unless we begged. In any other world, her baggy sweatshirt and big eyes peeping out from beneath waves of black hair would make her an outcast.
But we’d welcomed her. She sat behind me, on a deck chair, barely hovering on the periphery of our circle. That was usual, for Sasha.
That was where I should have been. I didn’t belong here, wavering on the edge of this pool, feeling my wrist burn with the lie that I’d carefully traced on with Sharpie this morning, like I did each morning. I belonged back in the shadows, with Sasha – an outcast.
I turned away. “I’m sorry, guys, I can’t!” I called out, eliciting a round of groans from the others. “I’m too drunk to get wet! You all have fun – I’ll keep Sasha company.”
“Nuh uh!” Quick as a striking snake, Rick rose up from the water, his hand flying out towards me. I scrambled backward, but not quite fast enough; his fingers wrapped around my arm, sliding down towards my hand as he fell back and attempted to haul me into the pool.
His fingers slid over my wrist. Oh god, the symbol – would the pen resist the water? Panicking, I shook Rick off, my hand now sodden and dripping from the transferred water.
It was too dark. I couldn’t see the symbol clearly, but I couldn’t risk being exposed. I backpedaled, away from the fun and frolicking, back towards Sasha and withdrawal.
Ignoring the boos from my friends, I dropped onto the deck chair beside Sasha. Kara’s parents had outfitted the whole backyard like a resort, with palm trees and a corner bar. Sasha, pulled in on herself, didn’t seem to notice any of it.
Her big, pale eyes, however, fastened on me as I sat down beside her. I wanted to check my wrist, see if the ink had smeared, but I couldn’t do it next to her. “Hi,” I said, feeling awkward.
“Hi.” She kept watching me, and the silence stretched out. I scrambled for something else to say.
“So what do you have planned now? Now that you’re graduating?” The words felt hollow, but it beat out the silence.
She shrugged, a pale, small shoulder briefly appearing from inside the oversized sweatshirt. “Dunno. You?”
“I don’t really know, either,” I admitted. I shook my hand, trying to get some of the water off. “Travel, maybe. Or just try to find a job. Not that anyone’s hiring much, as far as I can tell.”
Sasha nodded, and then suddenly, for no reason at all, a terribly stupid suggestion sprang into mind. “We could go together,” I went on, my mouth plunging ahead as my brain recoiled in shock. “Travel together. Go someplace new.”
For just an instant, I thought I saw a flare of something in those big eyes, a look of… surprise? Need? Desperate hunger? What were those emotions doing on her face? She lifted a hand, almost unconsciously, reaching out towards me.
“I don’t think so.” The words seemed to be all but ripped from her, but she shook her head. A blink, and we were back to ourselves, that strange moment now past. “I… I don’t really do well around people.”
“Yeah, I’ve noticed.” I tried to give her a wry smile, show her that I didn’t mean the words to hurt. “I feel that way too, a lot of the time.”
She shook her head again. “Not like this.”
If I’d been a little more sober, I might have wondered what she meant. Instead, however, a new idea sparked in my head. “Well, let me at least make you a drink,” I called out, standing up. As I did so, however, blood suddenly rushed to my head, and I felt a wave of wooziness hit me.
Vision swinging, I reached out to catch something to steady myself. Before Sasha could say anything, my hand closed on hers – and the sleeve of that oversized, baggy, ratty sweatshirt that she always wore slid up.
And I felt a bolt of lightning run up my spine to burn out all conscious thought in my brain.
Her wrist was bare.
She didn’t have a symbol.
She was like me-
Sasha was up, tearing her hand away from me. Her eyes burned, tears glimmering at their edges even as her mouth opened in a hiss. “Get away!” But she paused, torn between fight or flight.
I only had a second to react, before she would be gone – forever, I knew. But somehow, for the first time in my life, I knew what to do.
I turned my wrist, displaying it to her – and drew one finger down, over the symbol that I so painstakingly traced out each morning. The ink bled, ran, slipped away under my wet fingers.
I looked back up at Sasha, and saw her mouth hanging open. For a long minute, neither of us spoke. The party burbled on in the nearby pool, but we were in our own world.
I finally cleared my throat, fighting the hoarseness that made me feel like I hadn’t spoken aloud in years. “So, about that drink…” I began.
She nodded, even as she self-consciously tugged the sleeve back down to cover her wrist. “Okay.”
And even as Dan and Kara splashed happily together, and Rick and Elaine flirted (because even if two symbols didn’t match, that didn’t mean you couldn’t have a little fun, right?), we drew away. Neither of us knew what this meant, but we’d both realized the same conclusion.
We weren’t the only ones.